The “Film Look” is more than an F stop

DSLR film making quests for the film look of shallow depth of film. Film or more over cinema in turn quests for verisimilitude, a dream like environment, surrounded and wrapped by Dolby surround sound in a darkened room. We watch films and by this I mean films that end up in multiplexes in darkened places, cut off from the world outside, our only connection to the outside world or a world beyond though what we hear and the screen in front of us. The choices made by the film maker determine where our attention lies leading us through their vision. Film makers have many tools to focus out attention, crafting great performances, set design, lighting, sound and of course the camera, our visual connection to the world. The camera frames and focus’s ultimately what we see or not as the case may me.

Now here is the thing, when I dream what I see or remember seeing, feels real and before you think I am about to disappear down the Inception rabbit hole the point I am trying to make is that every thing feels like the real world if not a little out of kilter, I am there watching and participating in it. Is it in Real 3D no.  It just feels real. I no more think of things being in 3D than I think of the mechanics of typing this or that matter breathing. This brings be back to how we see things. Our field of vision is in widescreen. Our angle of view on the world is almost twice as wide as it is high. This is when we feel comfortable with widescreen films and TV, it just feels more natural. Our eyes are incredible sensors with amazing lenses all be it of a fixed focal length. We can see in very low light and in extreme brightness. When we focus on something in our field of vision we can still see around with our peripheral vision assuming it does not fully occupy our complete field of view. Our peripheral vision is not in perfectly sharp focus but It’s not half bad either. Our eyes take in the image and then process combining the stereoscopic image to create our perception of a 3D world. The camera takes the image and creates a flat image which is what we see. 3D films are optical illusions, screwing with our perception of a flat image and nothing more. But that is a whole other thing. Going back to my point If we are creating windows on other worlds they have to be easily accessible and naturalistic to perceive, if we have to stop and think about what we see it takes us out of the moment and takes out of verisimilitude, jarring us, breaking us out from what we are watching.

This all brings me back onto the HDSLR which has become the poster boy for creating controllable shallow depth of field or as people keep calling it a “film look”. But I am a firm believer that the “film look” is not about the camera or the depth of field, which for the most part of the last hundred years has been determined by lens and film stock technology. Stanley Kubrick used lenses developed by NASA to shoot Barry Lyndon by candle light.

Shallow depth of field is determined for the most part on two things, the film maker wanting to focus the audience on something or through the lack of light and so increasing the aperture to gain a correct exposure. A night exterior would loose its atmosphere and reality as would many situations if over lit. It’s all about lighting and creating a believable world in front of the camera. The notion that shallow depth of field creates a film look is as ridiculous as people claiming to be a Director of Photography just because they own a Canon 5D.

Screen grammar also contributes to the film look the choice of shots, the framing all make a difference, you see far more use of long and two shots in cinema than you do on TV. Does the camera do this. No, its the peeople behind it.

Colour is another critical factor in our perception of the “film look”. Kodak, Fuji, Agfa and Technicolor have spend millions developing film stocks and now sensors that capture the colour of our world. Film makers have used colour to create the worlds we watch on screen. Definite choices are made over colour or lack of it. Take a matter of Life and Death, by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, heaven is in black and white and the world in vivid technicolor. A definite choice in the use of colour to shape the story and the reality of it.

Films are photographed in a way to enhance the reality of a film, Saving Private Ryan, used a bleach by pass technique to add to it’s look, desaturating the image a choice that gave it a distinctive look, partially mirroring colour photography from the time. The desaturated look is is now ever present on footage seen on the internet using HDSLR’s to create a “film look”. But the old school bleach by pass does more that desaturate an image and that’s because of the physical way it works. If you desaturate a digital image the whole image arguably lightens and you see detail every where. With the bleach by pass technique not all the unexposed silver halide is removed creating more contrast in the grain. You never hear the term bleach by pass these days especially in the digital world and very few people understand the science behind it and I’m not going go into it here but there is more to it than desaturating the image. Today we see ever more desaturated material having the” film look” on the internet. The main difference between most films using the technique and HDSLR shoots is that a cinematographer and will design the light and look accordingly to need of the story and not just decide to do it in post via Bagic Bullet Looks

I will lay my hat down now and say I am not a big fan of most Canon 5D footage I’ve seen and that is not the cameras fault, I own and operate one, and would never call myself a cinematographer. The footage that I have seen for the most has no design other that the framing, lighting choices quite often seem non existent, that or, flat and uninspiring, saying and adding nothing to what’s on screen. The lighting seems to have no other function than to get an exposure, quite often an exposure that warrants a shallow depth of field a “film look”. Going back to the film look lets consider two of cinemas greatest shots, the opening tracking shot of  A Touch of Evil and Omar Sharif coming out of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, shot with a shallow depth of field? I don’t think so!

Going back to notion of of verisimilitude, a waking dream we have to consider what dream we want to convey before we start be it horror, kitchen sink drama or fantasy and create the look accordingly both in in front of the camera whilst shooting and after in post production. I for one do not dream at F1.2.

So many people get wrapped up in the actual film making process, being on set, calling action and cut without considering the actual final film they are making. The result of which we have all seen on the internet. Films are stories whether documentary or drama if you want a collection of pure unrelated images go to a gallery. In fact do go to a gallery and see how the masters lit, framed and focused their paintings and could tell stories through a single image. The National Gallery is free and open seven days a week, so there is no excuses. Finally if you want to create the” film look” start by learning what it is, watch old films and learn about the history of the craft and cinema not just how the camera works!




  1. Richard Lackey 22/05/2011 at 11:37 am #

    Awesome article… I wish I had written it on my blog. I take my hat off to you in telling it like it is, as unpopular is it may be, and risking the backlash. In my opinion, budget allowing this is why I believe celluloid still has a healthy future regardless of the fantastic digital technologies that come out.

    I don’t see them as rivals but as different tools for different looks, and the whole idea of shooting digitally to achieve a “film look” is rediculous to me.

    The only way to get a “film look” is to shoot film, and if that’s the intended look, feel for the story in question… I think all efforts should be made to shoot celluloid… super 16 is more accessible than ever and as sharp as 35 used to be a decade ago. 2-perf 35mm is also fantastic value for money but sadly is all too often never even considered in a indie production.

    The only camera I own is a old 1970’s era Mitchell R35 MkII, a set of T2.1 Bausch & Lomb primes (now popular and sought after for a vintage look on new digital cine cameras) and a T3.1 Cooke zoom. It’s all over 30 years old but shoot a 400ft load of Kodak’s latest and greatest 5219 (500T), and the image is fantastic, the age of the technology is transparent, nobody would be able to tell it wasn’t shot on a Arri 435.

    But, I like the image of the Red One MX, and my upcoming short “Inside” will be shot next month on the Arri Alexa… I’ve got nothing against digital cinema… I blog about it, it’s a passion and how I’ve made my living.

    My bottom line would be use the right tool and medium for the job. If you want the film look, then at least research the cost of shooting super 16mm in your budgeting process and compare it… try to raise the extra money… crowdsource it. The final visual integrity and “look” of your film will be worth every penny if that’s the look you or your D.P. envision for the story. It is noticeable, you will be able to tell by more than depth of field that you are looking at celluloid and not a 5D.

  2. Christopher 23/05/2011 at 7:49 pm #

    Thanks for the support Richard. I kind of knew it would be a little controversial but thought I would speak out as there are those who speak to preaching a little to about certain things without seemingly understanding the importance of the basics, more interested in settings and buttons than fundamentals of lighting and story telling.